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Charles CAMILLERI (1931-2009)
Piano Concerto No. 1 Mediterranean (1948, rev. 1978) [28:45]
Concerto for Accordion and String Orchestra (1968) [14:25]
Malta Suite (1946) [17:11]
Charlene Farrugia (piano); Franko Božac (accordion)
Malta Philharmonic Orchestra/Miran Vaupotić
rec. Mediterranean Conference Centre, Valletta, Malta, 2014. DDD
NAXOS 8.573373 [60:21]

This is my first encounter with the music of the Malta’s most famous composer Charles Camilleri. He is indeed the only Maltese composer I am aware of, and a check of Mike Herman’s National Discographies doesn’t turn up anyone else from the island. While admitting that the music on this recording is not particularly serious, I will say that it is very enjoyable.

Camilleri was born and raised in Malta and emigrated to Australia in 1949 or 1950. A well-known Australian singer/songwriter, Joe Camilleri, was also born in Malta and emigrated to Australia in 1950. As far as I can tell, there is no familial connection between the two. To add to the “confusion” a clarinet solo in the Malta Suite is played by a Joseph Camilleri, and the informative booklet notes are written by a Dr Joseph Camilleri. It is not clear whether these are one and the same person.

Returning to Charles, he moved to London where he earned his living as an arranger of light music, performer, composer and conductor. He assisted Sir Malcolm Arnold on the soundtrack of The Bridge on the River Kwai. He dedicated his career to composition in the mid-1960s, and took up the post of Professor of Composition at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, Canada, and also lectured at Buffalo State University, where he met and became influenced by Elliott Carter, John Cage and Morton Feldman. Thus the works from this period are very different to those of earlier decades. He finally returned to Malta in 1983, continuing to compose until his death.

All three works presented here are from the neo-Romantic stage of his career. The First Piano Concerto, subtitled ‘Mediterranean’ because of the influences from southern Europe and north Africa is unashamedly Romantic, very much in the Rachmaninov mould, though rather lighter and less virtuosic. The slow movement begins with a haunting, unaccompanied solo for French horn.

He wrote three piano concertos, available on a single disc from the Talent label (review). Those who purchase and enjoy this recording and feel the urge to hear the other two, as I did, should read Rob Barnett’s review, as it points out that Concertos 2 & 3 are a complete contrast to the First, being mostly dissonant and angular. Encouragingly, there is a fourth concerto, actually named a concertino, which returns to the tonal school. This is available on a Divine Arts recording (review) in its two piano form, and Hubert Culot describes the slow movement as “one of the loveliest things that I have ever heard”.

The Accordion Concerto is at the end of his nationalist Romantic phase, and the atonic dissonant finale is evidence of the coming change in his style. The Second Piano Concerto was written in the same year. The accordion – Camilleri was a virtuoso – is not an instrument that appeals greatly to me, but I didn’t mind the first two movements.

Also on the Divine Arts disc is the Malta Suite, four pieces titled Country Dance, Waltz, Nocturne and Village Fiesta. Those titles will give you a good sense of the style of music contained therein. If I call it light music, I am not doing so a pejorative sense.

Production quality and performances are uniformly excellent. It is clear that you need to be careful with the music of Camilleri, as with Joly Braga Santos, in that their musical style changed so drastically mid-career. If you like well-crafted tuneful music, with no great pretensions, then you will enjoy this. If you want something more rigorous, look elsewhere, perhaps his later works.

David Barker

Another review ...

The Piano Concerto No. 1 is a lush piece that is alive with Mediterranean temperament. It reminded me at various times of the piano concertos of Malcolm Williamson and John Carmichael's equally colourful Concerto Folklorico. The music is good-natured, floral and decorative yet such sunny virtues are relieved by dark shadows, romance and a sort of heat-haze that rises in the outer movements. The central Adagio with a French horn solo played by Marco Cola is peace embodied with slowly moving gentle veils and bell sounds providing the barest of ostinato punctuation. The third movement well and truly breaks the spell with some rather clodhopping and unsophisticated dances - full of life and strong rhythmic accents. The Accordion Concerto is not at all prolix and is far removed from the avant-garde japes I recall hearing in various Norwegian concertos for the instrument. Its first movement is all Mozartean innocence, silvery and lively serenity. The second does a nice line in weightless creamy nostalgia while the finale is more spiky: Prokofiev with an acid chaser. The Malta Suite is light with its movements taking in the country dance and a rather charming waltz in which the clarinet is played by Joseph Camilleri. The Nocturne is a chilly meditation with a sense of bereavement inflecting what we hear. The finale is decidedly Hispanic. Good to read that the Waltz is played in the main square in Valletta. Camilleri in similarly light mode can be heard in a generous selection of suites and movements on Divine Art.

All the works here benefit from a full-on recording with particular prominence accorded to the piano.

Over the years Camilleri has had quite a few CDs issued. His organ works were recorded in 1994 by Kevin Bowyer on Unicorn-Kanchana DKP(CD)9151. The Organ Concerto - again played by Bowyer - appeared with other Camilleri pieces on ASV CD DCA1011. That same company included in their now deleted catalogue a recital of his music for violin and piano: ASV CD DCA1040. The Missa Brevis featured on Unicorn-Kanchana DKP(CD)9157 and Olympia issued a CD of Murray McLachlan in Camilleri's music for solo piano; in fact I suspect there were several such volumes. There is very little Camilleri currently available so let's hope that this Naxos disc augurs well for more.

This Naxos recording project owes its existence to funding from the Valletta 2018 Foundation (the organizing body of the European Capital of Culture) and the Mediterranean Conference Centre. This is an excellent use of the funding. Good to hear the Malta Philharmonic again after last hearing them in various recordings of rare British music (review ~ review ~ review) and works by Brull and Jadassohn on Cameo Classics.

Rob Barnett

 

 




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